Sometimes it is not about removing complexity, but about hiding it

*Complexity is one of those things in life that you wish you had less of. It’s everywhere, and in most cases it’s a headache. But in our modern, ever-evolving world, it is a central component of life. You simply have to get along with it. Many design fields have set themselves the task of reducing complexity and, in the best case, perhaps even removing it altogether. However, this is not always desirable and can even be a hindrance in some areas.

Lenticular Design: Complexity at a “first” glance for beginners and at a “second” glance for advanced users

“Complexity” is first of all only the description of a condition that cannot be grasped and immediately understood at brief glance. Complexity requires more time and a more in-depth study of the subject. Both of these are things that we usually attach a negative connotation to in our modern, high-brow world of life.

Not least since the start-up world with its “onboarding mantra” and the ubiquitous reduction of all complexity has trimmed us to expect most things to immediately reveal all (or at least most) of their secrets to us in the most obvious way possible. Figurative examples are often used for this purpose (after all, you don’t want to have to look for the buttons on an elevator every time you use one). But such more or less universally valid standards are not a panacea and the impression must not be created that a world without any complexity is possible, because this is (unfortunately?) not the case. Instead, I advocate hiding complexity, but still allowing it. “Hiding” does not have a negative connotation, but simply means hiding certain functions for a certain period of time or until they are needed. Instead of “dumbing down” (as the Americans say) programmes, applications, processes and procedures to the lowest common denominator, it is better to allow the possibility of complexity where it makes sense, so that people who are interested in complexity can also access it.

A broad statement

I realise that this statement is very broad to begin with. After all, there are many areas of life where complexity can be a disadvantage (in the operating theatre, when driving a car, when buying a ticket at a ticket machine). In these areas, complexity should be reduced as much as possible (And in all three examples, there is still plenty of potential to do this…). In these examples complexity is a barrier that it should not be. Be it to save human lives or to enable as many people as possible to get from A to B smoothly.

But there are also many areas in which complexity is desirable. Be it to pass the time or to get work done faster on the computer. The latter is a good example. Many of us use computer programmes in our daily work. These range from simple apps for writing texts to complex 3D CAD software, the adequate operation of which can require several computer monitors and a training period of several months.

To follow the second example here would be a little too simple, because anyone who works with a 3D CAD programme knows about its complexity. And to anyone who has never worked with such a programme: it is exactly as you imagine it. But of course, here a softer entry with a high quality onboarding experience for newer users or people entering the field would be highly desireable.

But even with a seemingly simple application like a text editor, there are vast differences. Not only in the complexity of the programme, but also in the complexity of the documents that can be created with this application. While every operating system comes with a simple, minimal text editor, if you write regularly or create documents that go beyond a simple to-do list, you will quickly reach the limits of these simple application and their clarity. After all, simplicity can also be limiting. At the upper end are programmes like Obsidian, Ulysses and Scrivener, whose main target group is no longer just casual writers, but whose main focus is on the creation of complex documents, including their meta-level (background story, character development, etc.). If we now add technologies such as version control of texts with Git, we reach a level of complexity that can quickly become confusing if we are not careful.

The Standard cannot be underestimated

On a sidenote: it is very interesting that one of the most widely used applications for writing and editing text is still Microsoft Word. An application that can get the work done, but is really cumbersome to use and absolutely not useable in a Git based multi editor workflow or for creating text that is intended to be published on multiple platforms.

Weighing out advantages and disadvantages

However, one gladly accepts the threat of confusion if, in return, one receives the possibility of a tool that greatly simplifies the creation of complex worlds. The most important point however, is that care is taken to make this “optional complexity” accessible step by step. This means that users who do not want to be confronted with it or who have just started to use the program have the possibility to get started and to be able to hide the complexity in the process. This “hiding” should not be taken too literally and instead of simply assigning the tools to a palette that is then hidden when the program is started, care should be taken that the users are given a didactic approach to the topic of complexity so that it is gradually unlocked.

Tutorial instead of onboarding

Complexity cannot be explained with three “onboarding slides”. Instead, one can take a cue from various computer programs, especially video games, which offer the possibility of a tutorial at the beginning, during first use, or via a button in the main menu. However, this should not simply rattle through the function of the individual palettes, menus or window areas, but the users should play through a “story”. This gives them the opportunity to better understand the connections and to remember them more easily.

Lenticular Design

This term describes the next level of successfully hidden complexity. The term is based on the lenticular printing technique, which is used to create prints in such a way that different things can be seen from different angles.

Complexity in Magic: the Gathering

This well-known trading card game is a good example of lenticular design. It is one of the most complex board games in existence, yet it’s rules are very easy and can be picked up within a few short game rounds. At first glance, many cards have a clear function and purpose for inexperienced beginners. But for experienced players, the cards reveal possibilities that remain hidden to less experienced players until they are able to decipher the meaning. Thus, the complexity can slowly be uncovered as the players skills advance.

Why games are so far ahead here

In games, whether board games or video games, the game is already the end product that aims to satisfy the user (to encourage the purchase of a sequel, etc.). So unlike our ticket machine mentioned at the beginning, it is not just a means to an end (the customer needs the ticket to use the train), but it is directly the end itself. This means that the creators/producers do everything they can to draw the customers into their game world as easily as possible and to make the entry as smooth as possible. But in the medium term, the complexity in terms of variety, diversity and demand must increase in order to retain customers in the long term and thus increase the revenue generated. Not only games work according to this principle, but the large part of the entertainment industry. The social media platforms have merely adopted these trends/characteristics and amplified them many times over.

So it is long past time to stop dismissing these functioning things as “newfangled” and to receive them benevolently. And instead of making things simpler and simpler until they become useless and worthless, one should rather refine the processes that distribute the complexity lenticularly on two levels. Once for the beginners or the occasional users and once for the professionals who want to get as much out of it as possible.